Equal parts Dickens, Austen, and Charles Williams (with a dash of Mervyn Peake), Susanna Clarke's first novel combines the best elements of historical fiction and fantasy to create a believable world in this modern novel of manners. Clarke implements a hybrid Victorian/contemporary style that is accessible and never tacky or cheesy. And while this is a novel of manners, it's also a novel about magic and the Napoleanic Wars and a mysterious king of England, the Raven King John Uskglass.
Mr. Norrell is a gentleman magician. When he displays his abilities he becomes an overnight sensation in England, attracting the attention of nobleman Jonathan Strange who becomes Norrell's apprentice, and quickly outstrips his master. The two are thrust into international intrigue (the Napoleanic Wars, in which Wellington enlists Strange's help) and domestic intrigue (the return of the mysterious Raven King to England). The period elements are convincing; the plot is complex and engaging.
For those whose memory of the history of magic is shaky there are voluminous footnotes, from clarifying the arcane names of John Uskglass to relating little-known tales of magic eggs in Nottingham. There's plenty of wit—some dry, some hilarious—and even if the plot wasn't utterly intriguing, the book would be worth reading just for the prose. But don't get the idea this is merely an entertainment (entertaining as it undoubtedly is).
A major theme of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the relationship of madness and reason. Magic represents madness, while the prosaic aspects of everyday life represent reason, though the dichotomy is more subtle. Madness also represents the unpredictable natural world, the elements of life that cannot be controlled without disastrous consequences. Thus madness and reason aren't at odds, but complementary halves of existence which must both be embraced to live fully.
Lesser writers might explore such themes clumsily, but Clarke includes depth of thought alongside an engaging narrative resulting in one of the finest novels in recent years.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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